Workers at the National Visa Center (NVC) organized to join UE last year, and overcame their employer’s tough anti-union campaign to win a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)election and gain union representation last October 19. Over the following four months, this workforce of nearly 600 received its UE charter as local 228, and members negotiated and ratified their first union contract, approved on February 28.
NVC is a facility of the U.S. State Department, but the operation is outsourced to contactors who are technically the workers’ employers. The current contractors at NVC are FCi, Ikun, AGS, and Senture. Like many of UE’s members in four other states who work for federal contractors (mostly FCi) at U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) facilities, these workers are covered by the Service Contract Act (SCA). That’s a federal statute regulating pay and working conditions for federal contract workers.
When they were fighting to gain a union, workers organized around several issues they saw as central to improving their working lives: Fairness on the job, seniority protection, increased wages, improved benefits, and union security. Those issues became their bargaining program when they finally gained the opportunity to sit down with their employers and negotiate a contract.
Chartered as UE Local 228, these new union members prepared extensively for bargaining. They coordinated with other UE members who work for FCi around the country. UE members at who worked for FCi in Laguna Niguel, CA (Local 1008), Lincoln, NE (Local 808) and Chicago (Local 1118) went to their managers’ officer to pressure the company to agree to a fair contract for Local 228. While Local 228 was in negotiations, Local 1118 members were bargaining their own contract with FCi at the USCIS office in Chicago which they completed in mid–February. After that they pitched in to back Local 228 members.
The Portsmouth workers quickly learned how to apply UE’s rank-and-file tactics to bring the negotiations onto the workplace floor. This included coordinated days of wearing stickers, buttons, and t-shirt, and union negotiators and stewards giving regular reports to members on the jobs as negotiations progressed through the winter. The company stubbornly resisted union proposals it had agreed to in the other UE contracts, and put demands on the table to restrict workers’ basic union rights. But the members were more stubborn than the company, eventually forcing management to back down and agree to union proposals.
Early on the Local had decided it wanted to have “open” negotiations which meant members were encouraged to attend bargaining sessions as observers. Members attended bargaining sessions to force management to see that the bargaining committee had the support of the rank and file. They also functioned as eyewitnesses who reported back to co-workers what the company was proposing and how management negotiators were behaving were acting. From 10 to 20 observers from the membership attended most sessions in the final phase of bargaining, and at least 75 members attended one or more sessions. Their presence helped pressure the company to withdraw bad proposals and modify others.
In December, as the union was preparing for negotiations, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) increased its “average wage determination” for several labor classifications in the Portsmouth area labor market. This helped the union win wage gains, because under the SCA, federal contract employers are reimbursed for wage rates on the basis of DOL determinations. This meant that Local 228 members would receive substantial pay hikes beginning April 1, 2017. Over 90 percent of the 600 members at NVC are classified as general clerk 1 and data entry operator II, and they became eligible for automatic wage increases of between 6 and 12 percent. Nearly half of the workforce would go from a pay rate of $11.48 to $13.02, and half would see their pay increase from $13.02 to $13.84.
The local’s demand of $15 an hour was not met in this contract. The company refused to pay it even though the additional raises would not come out of profits but would be reimbursed by the federal government. But winning their first raises in years (as many as seven years for some) was a big breakthrough. Members were then able to focus on and built a solid foundation of contract language providing union security, stability, fairness, and equity. The local looks to strengthen its organization and make bigger wage gains in the next agreement. Because the wage increases were less than it hoped for, the local decided to go for a one-year agreement, and the company eventually agreed. On the morning when the tentative agreement was reached, the union leadership immediately met with over 450 members, in three meeting sessions, to go through the tentative agreement, followed by discussion and vote. The contract was overwhelmingly ratified by 80 percent.
The contract significantly improves wages and codifies existing practices or improves health insurance, sick pay, holidays, and job security. It spells out how seniority will apply in determining promotions and transfers and overtime opportunities and lay-off. It requires just cause for the employer to discipline or discharge employees, and the new grievance procedure gives union stewards the ability to investigate and argue grievances during work time. A fourth week of vacation for workers with 10 or more years of service was restored. (It had been taken away when the present contractor took over the facility.) The contract includes strong health and safety language and a union-chosen safety committee. Leaves of absence for medical and other reasons were improved – including for the first time, leave of absence for union activities. The negotiations improved bereavement leave, and the union secured the ability for workers to take extended bereavement leave for family members in “non-contiguous” countries. Many members have families in countries thousands of miles from Portsmouth.
Bill Ladd, a member of the UE bargaining committee and now president of the local, says of the negotiations, “It was fun. We modeled our language proposals after the language in the Local 808 and 208 and 1008 contracts. At our first bargaining meeting, the company lawyer said, ‘We don’t want to use the language from the other contracts,’ but then he repeatedly brought up language from other contracts if it was more restrictive.” Ladd adds, “We wanted $15 an hour, and while we didn’t quite get there, we got some pretty good other stuff.” He points out that while the area wage determination “says that you get four weeks vacation at 15 years, we took five years off that and got four weeks at 10 years.”
The negotiating committee consisted of Laurie Brown-Lavign, Bill Ladd, Anthony Comeau, Ken Caye, June Reed Vermette, and Parker Pruitt. They were assisted by UE Field Organizer Zach Knipe and General President Peter Knowlton. In addition to Ladd as president, two other members who served on the bargaining committee are now local officers: Comeau as vice president and Brown-Lavign as chief steward.